Theater review by David Cote. American Airlines Theatre. By William Inge. Dir. Sam Gold. With ensemble cast. 2hrs 5mins. One intermission.
Maybe we’re ready for William Inge again. The Kansan playwright had a string of Broadway hits in the 1950s, but fell out of fashion by the end of the decade and committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1973. Unless you did Bus Stop in high school or studied Inge’s work in college, you don’t feel the same iconic jolt as with Williams or O’Neill. That may be changing. Five years ago, Keen Company offered a haunting revival of The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and shortly after, Manhattan Theatre Club revisited Come Back, Little Sheba. Now we get the Roundabout’s sensuous, gently stylized, cunningly cast revival of Picnic, staged by the ever-surprising Sam Gold.
Inge did not aim for the poetic tragedy of his more canonized contemporaries. The easygoing naturalism of his domestic dramas has a blend of heartache and wistful longing, centering on insecure youths and disappointed adults, all twisting between repression and escape. It’s a gossamer tone, but Gold and his actors capture it. In the pivotal role of sexually disruptive drifter Hal, Sebastian Stan may look more like Greek statuary than a boxcar-hopping roughneck, but his chiseled torso signals that Gold is not a slave to dead-end realism; he wants us, in 2013, to face the beauty. Maggie Grace’s Madge, daughter of Flo Owens (Mare Winningham) is also painfully pretty. Like Stan, Grace is not a polished stage performer, and the slight slippage between physical perfection and restrained (but earnest) performance generates a sort of sweet friction.
Admirably, Gold keeps everyone in the same world: Elizabeth Marvel as a brassy schoolteacher desperate for marriage; Reed Birney as her genial, reluctant suitor; Ellen Burstyn as a sentimental old maid; and young Madeleine Martin as Madge’s overlooked, tomboyish sister. Rich in pathos, attuned to its period but still fresh and, above all, dangerously sexy, Picnic is a feast.—David Cote
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